Life is art

This film was missing for many years and finally made its reappearance as Downtown 81. Either title fits the film, though the latter anchors it in time and place. We follow Jean Michel Basquiat through one day in his life - or a life very like his. The voiceover that starts the film claims the movie is "not true" but also "not false, either".

As beat poetry, the film certainly fits the bill. There's little real plot, just following the ups and downs of existence for this one person, crossing through the worlds of art, poetry, and music. We essentially have a time capsule of the New York beat scene of the early 80s. It's not a documentary, but it plays a little like one. It's not really a narrative, but it pretends to be one. What we really see, as Basquiat moves through the world and leaves his artistic mark on it, is an artistic statement itself.

So how good is this piece of artwork? On a technical level, the execution is a little raw, with strange dialog-matching issues, which looks more like lip-syncing than ADR. The camera is largely handheld, with a very documentary feel. Movement is somewhere between improvised and staged, depending on the shot. As for what the piece is trying to say, I may be dense, but I don't see much beyond a simple statement on life, and its humble ambitions and setbacks. On that score, it's effective, but not as compelling as it should be. I found myself more interested in the scene, and identifying the famous people of the time.

For another perspective, be sure to check out Basquiat, based upon his short but expressive life.

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